An Art documentary and New Orleans preservation

22 Jan

I wanted to write about some movies that were about art and artists. This morning, I finished watching The Art of the Steal.

It “traces the history of the Barnes collection of Post-Impressionist paintings, which was worth billions and became the subject of a power struggle after the 1951 death of the owner. Dr. Albert Barnes collected 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and many other valuable paintings. But the political wrangling over the collection eventually led to its division.”

Dr. Barnes meant for his collection to be used for education, and he had a non-museum-like way of displaying the work. Instead of dividing it up by country of origin, or by style, he hung things mixed together as a way of signifying the universality the human experience. So carved wooden African heads are next to Renoir paintings are next to Chinese furniture. It’s a pretty beautiful idea, and I never thought about the way museums are organized in an opposite way and what that might mean.

The political maneuverings related to the art collection are sad, and make me think about money and art in general. I’m not one of those people who think art should be pure of money, because artists need to make a living! But politics and money and art, that’s a difficult combination. And I hate the way politicians and foundations and corporations can exploit things without valuing anything except money.

We hurt ourselves and our society when we can only see the bottom line. The Barnes collection was so much more than the sum of the work. It had a whole philosophy and belief system behind it. It had uniqueness and individuality.

The movie got me thinking about what is happening in mid-city here in New Orleans, which I’ve been following on a blog called Inside the Footprint. There is a large swath of land being cleared for what is supposed to be a giant hospital complex. This project is not yet fully funded, and despite promises of preservation, both historic buildings and large oak trees have been destroyed at breakneck speed. If it’s already done, there isn’t much anyone can do to stop it, after all.

But the fabric of our neighborhoods is one of the things that make this city so special and so different. One little shotgun house or another granite curb might be a dime a dozen now, but it is this pervasiveness of historic elements that contribute to making our city worth living in and worth visiting. If you chip away at that historic specialness with grand ideas for brand-new developments, what do you have in 10 years or 20 years or 80 years? A bunch of crappy, used-to-be-new buildings surrounding the French Quarter? Count me out of that scene. I want people to see the bigger picture, to value things above money, to value ideas and differences. I want everyone to act right in an art and culture-loving utopia! Is that too much to ask?

ETA: I was wrong about no houses being moved. Some have, but not many and not enough.


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